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The Shiite South: Islam, Democracy, Unity?

Iraq's long-oppressed Shia majority, who dominate the southern half of the country, stand to take a leading role in a new, democratic Iraq. This worries many of their fellow Iraqis, and some in Washington, who fear an Islamic state aligned with neighboring Iran. But Iraq's Shiites are not a monolithic bloc -- they, too, are divided between radical and moderate, Islamist and secular. Here, discussing these issues in excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews, are The New Yorker's Jon Lee Anderson, Iraqi Governing Council members Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and Adnan Pachachi, and Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi al-Modarresi.

Jon Lee Anderson
A staff writer for The New Yorker, he has reported recently on Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Arabs.

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In southern Iraq, do you find a significant change in attitudes from what you see in Baghdad?

Yes. South from Baghdad it's primarily Shia. And these are the people, of course, who suffered a great deal under Saddam Hussein. They've never had a share in the power. It's a region, by and large, of people who are much poorer than the people in this part of the country, in the center. ... And so the south is different in terms of its population and its history. These are the people who had the most to gain by an invasion and an ouster of Saddam Hussein. And the Shia leaders have pragmatically decided not to attack but to tactically align themselves with the occupation authorities in order to wait out the moment when they will leave, and then take their place in power as the majority population in the country. ...

But Grand Ayatollah Sistani is seen as somebody who's making Bremer's job more difficult, who's obstructionist. What's his strategy?

Sistani knows that unless there is a formula, an electoral formula, whereby the Shia majority get the response they feel historically is their due, there could be serious problems in this country. The schisms that are already there amongst the Shia will deepen significantly. You also could see the political leadership of the Shia ending their alliance with the Americans and the British to build a new Iraq. And you could see the beginning of an insurgency amongst the Shia. ...

I did not see much of a distance between Sistani's position and Sayyid Abdul Aziz al-Hakim's. ... They believe it is their moment to assume power in Iraq. ...

What I see from the Shia is a gradual display of their actual power in the country. I think the fatwas and pronouncements by Sistani have served a dual purpose, both to extract specific concessions for the Shia community from the Americans and the coalition, and also to further cement the idea that they are a force to be reckoned with, and that they will not go away. ...

What about divisions within the Shia community? How serious are they? [Moqtada al-]Sadr gets a lot of press. ...

Sadr is the son of a very revered ayatollah here, who was killed several years ago. ... And his was one of the last and most scandalous in a series of murders, or strange inexplicable deaths in car accidents and so forth, of prominent Shia clerics over the years under Saddam's regime. So his son, who's very young and regarded by most of the Shia I've talked to as semi-literate, without the kind of spiritual merit as his father -- he's not an imam, first of all -- has emerged as a kind of Young Turk of the disgruntled, marginal, very poor Shia community. People variously say he has between 30 and 40 percent of the hearts of the Shia, primarily in Sadr City, the slum in the northeast of Baghdad, and also in Kufa and around Najaf. ...

The other clerics, Hakim and Sistani included, tend not to chastise him in public because he does have a following, he does have a constituency which could be troubling, could become very militant, and which could make their own lives and positions tenuous. They want, above all, to avoid any kind of civil war or bloodletting between the Shia -- which, of course, is the kind of thing that their enemies amongst the Sunnis would love to see happen, because it would dismember this ascendancy by the Shia as a unified block in tandem with the coalition, which may well give them a predominant share of the power that's going to come after Bremer steps down. ...

It's a very strange alliance the Americans are making with the Badr Brigade, which has been affiliated with the Iranians. It's an odd alliance.

Oh, yes. It is an odd alliance. And the Hakims -- both the late ayatollah [Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim] and his brother [Abdul Aziz al-Hakim] -- keep their own counsel. They were given sanctuary in Iran. ... And they had 23 years in Iran to witness the changes there, the corruption of the clerical regime. And they keep their own counsel on that. But I have come away from all my meetings with them with the sense that they know that they could never have that same kind of revolution here in Iraq, if one day they had wanted it. And most of them did, and have admitted that to me -- that there was a time when they wished to have a Khomeini-style state here. ...

Sistani -- he wants an Islamic state.

They won't go so far as to say that specifically. They're aware of how that sounds, I think, to the West. They would like a state -- a form of government -- which respects and vouchsafes Islam as the predominant religion of Iraq. ... They want the nature of Iraq to be identified constitutionally and legally as Islamic.

They want Sharia law?

The specifics will come later. This is something that's all negotiable. ... They're potentially future sticking points.

And Sadr wants a more aggressively rooted Islamic state, with full Sharia law?

I gather. I don't think Hakim will insist upon that. I have the feeling that the larger and the more powerful Shia political establishment will go for a more moderated version. Because -- and I believe this to be true -- they, above all, want the kind of spiritual freedom that comes with being Shia.

Sistani -- it's important to note that he is no Khomeini. He is not a man who believes that the clergy should be the political establishment of the country. He believes that being a Shia, and that Islam, is a way of life and a culture. And I think what he seeks is something discernibly different than what the West came to see in the Iran of Khomeini. ...

There is this resurgence of Shiism at the moment, after this great repression, which includes both the unthinking ... ecstatic, perhaps primitive Shiism, which many Shia are embarrassed about -- and the Sadr type of Shiism, which is political, much as we might have seen in the early days of Khomeini -- and then this other Shiism, which is merely a chance to breathe, to be proud to be what they are, and have their place in society and not be second-class citizens.


Abdul Aziz al-Hakim
Formerly an exile in Iran, he is the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and a prominent member of the Iraqi Governing Council.

photo of hakim
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We have spoken with many people who fear civil war. ... You cannot underestimate the potential for civil strife, civil unrest. Don't you share some of those concerns?

In fact, we have warned against the sectarian division and fears of [civil war]. But the enemies of Iraq and the sympathizers of the ex-regime are working, are doing their best to [place] their bets that there's going to be a civil war, a sectarian war among the Iraqi people. Today the enemies of the Iraqi people are trying hard to bring about civil war. But we have been working hard, and we will continue to prevent such a war in the future, because [of] the need for unity among the Iraqi people. ...

But there are also differences, severe differences within the Shia community. For instance, what constituency does Moqtada Sadr represent?

There are no great differences, or severe differences as you said, because everybody believes in the need to end the occupation and to establish a national government and elected national government -- that there should be a permanent constitution for the country, and that law and order should be back to Iraq. We all believe in those principles. There could be some differences in the viewpoints that we adopt concerning certain details. But generally, there are no bitter divisions in this regard. As I told you, there are no big differences in the points of view that we adopt.

I ask again, what does Moqtada Sadr represent? Who are his followers?

His followers are those who followed his late father before him. Of course, those are part of the Iraqi people.

You're reluctant to criticize him. But it's clear that, between him and you, between him and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, there are great differences.

To have different points of view is something, and to have clashes is something else, because any party members could have differences. You have to differentiate here between the bitter clashes or bitter divisions, and having different points of view, because the bitter clashes could lead to collision and to separation.

So you describe basically collegial differences between you and Moqtada Sadr? Minor collegial differences?

Well, let's not use different terms or different terminology. And to use clashes -- the points of view. Let's be away from this.

[Sadr] makes no effort to use calm rhetoric; he's quite inflammatory. He's called for the establishment of an Islamic guerilla army. Many people -- commentators, observers -- believe that you and Sistani have been very cautious in criticizing him, because he does represent a significant angry constituency within the Shia community.

This is the wrong conclusion.

One of the fears that Ambassador Bremer and this U.S. administration have is the establishment of an Islamic government in Iraq. What is the nature of the Islamic government you are calling for?

I think this is a question to be asked to Ambassador Bremer.

As regards [to] the government that we want, we don't want an Islamic government. We want a constitutional government that preserves the rights of everybody and a government that believes in the public rights; a government that works for the interest of the Iraqi people, and believes that the people are the source to derive all the important decisions that concern the future of the Iraqi people.

You have, though, called for a government that holds Islam supreme, where Islam would be the guiding force behind the government, without real separation of church and state. Am I incorrect?

The conference in London was attended by all the sects of the Iraqi people including the Shiites and the Kurds, and the Sunnis, and the secular people. They all agree that the major religion of the state should be Islam. But to respect Islam is one thing, and to establish an Islamic government is something else. ...

You opposed the plan that was proposed by the CPA to have caucuses in the 18 provinces, and instead called for direct elections. Why?

We have called for the election. To have elections and caucuses is something good. It's good to have each [group] have its own constituents, and its own electors, or candidates. We all agree that we should respect the opinion of our people, what people want.

Of course, we invited people to participate in this process. Then we should have a very firm basis on any of the future government that's going to be elected. This government would be properly defended and would be [controlled] by the people. ... This is the true democracy, the true meaning of democracy. America has to accept this, because the decision of people should be respected.


Adnan Pachachi
A secular Sunni Arab and former exile, he was foreign minister of Iraq before the 1968 Baathist coup and is now an influential member of the Iraqi Governing Council.

photo of pachachi
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Is there enough nationalism to hold this country together?

I think there is. Not only nationalism, but also I think the majority of Iraq is secular in outlook. We must not forget that the religious parties are political parties using religion as a means of acquiring power. But I think the majority of Iraqis are secular in outlook. They do not belong [to] or support necessarily any of the religious parties, whether Sunni, or Shia, for that matter.

Let's talk about the sectarian differences. ... Is it a concern of yours that a person like Moqtada Sadr can stir up trouble for Iraq?

He can stir up trouble in some areas. But I don't think he has any national appeal all over the country. He has supporters, obviously, here [in Baghdad] in Sadr City, [as] they call it now.

He has quite a number of supporters--

He has some in Najaf, I suppose, and Kufa. But then, of course, the Shiite religious establishment don't look with favor on him. There are divisions among them, as you know.

But they are afraid of him, it seems?

Well, he's a sort of a populist, isn't he? He takes extreme positions and makes extreme pronouncements. Hes a, have you met him by any chance?

I've been to his Friday prayers. I hope to meet him.

Well, from what I hear, he's rather unpredictable, shall I say.

He's young?

Yes, he is.

I spoke with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim about him. He was reluctant to even mention his name. ... They don't want to recognize him.

No. They dislike him. He's challenging the established authority and the Shiite religious establishment.

Which causes a serious split in the--

Of course, yes. He thinks that he has the right to be a leader of this, because of his father obviously, who was a respected religious figure. But then there are other groups within the Shiite establishment who do not see eye to eye with Hakim or with Sadr or -- you have the [Hezbollah], of course. This is another -- they are also splintered into two or three groups. You have respected individuals who don't have a great following, like Hamid Majeed Mousa, one of our colleagues in the consulate.

Then you have religious Shiites who are not clerics. You have the secular Shiites who are the majority. I think most Shiites are secular in outlook, and also Sunnis. The religious groups, whether Sunni or Shia, are better organized. They are organized because others are fragmented. The secularists are fragmented because they have different political beliefs. The religious groups are well organized, and they have financial resources, which give them an edge.

But I think, with time, when the time for elections -- or the selection I should say -- of the interim or the provisional legislative council, I think there'll be a lot of secular Shiites in it. ...

Among the professional people, among the educated classes, among the teachers, the professors, the labor leaders, lawyers, doctors, all that, there's quite a large professional, secular group in Iraq. I think people will be surprised how strong [they are].

I am trying myself actually with some others to bring all these groups together -- in spite of their political differences -- but bring them because they share certain fundamental beliefs, the--

These secular groups, you mean?

Yes. Liberal democratic. If you can get them into one sort of national front, so to speak, and then we can really enter the elections or the selection process well organized and pretty strong. So we can really face up to the fundamental religious groups. It is important, because I think eventually the real confrontation will be between people who want to establish a religious state in Iraq and those who want to have a secular state. This is the main sort of conflict or confrontation eventually. ...

So you see the threat of, or struggle between secularists and those who wish for an Islamic [state]--

Eventually. Eventually, I think this is going to be the main issue in Iraq. ...

One other point is there's intertribal conflicts. I was talking to a commander out in Falluja today. He said if we were to pack up and leave, there would be bloody warfare among the tribes -- a scramble for power, warlordism.

But if there is a strong central government with sufficient forces -- that's army or police -- they'll be able to pacify the tribes. But the tribes did not fight immediately after the war. Contrary to all predictions, Iraq did not fall into a civil war and conflict between various communities.

I think that the thing that encourages a lot of people -- including myself -- is that Iraq, in spite of all the problems we are facing, we are still by and large living in peaceful harmony among [our]selves. Sometimes people exaggerate these divisions between Sunnis and Shiites. I think people must realize that what really divides Iraqis is not the accident of their birth, whether they are a Shiite or a Sunni. It's really their political beliefs, because most people, as I said, are really secular in outlook. ...

This is the thing. The people of Iraq don't fight against each other because they belong to different nationalities or different religions or different communities. This is not Ireland, not Northern Ireland. It's not Lebanon. It's not Bosnia. On the individual level, the Iraqis don't fight each other because I happen to be a [Sunni] and he happens to be a Shiite. They may fight because I'm a communist and the other one is a capitalist. OK. [They] may fight [because] I'm a secularist and the other chap is a religious fundamentalist, but not because he is a Shiite or a Sunni.

Then there has been such a lot of intermarriages between Shiites and Sunnis, between Arabs and Kurds. Families are intermingled now in such a way that it's difficult to tell who is what. But obviously, the religious parties are political parties using religion to acquire power -- essentially political parties -- and they feel that religion is the way to [strengthen] their power.


Mohammad Taqi al-Modarresi
One of Iraq's five living grand ayatollahs, Modarresi lives and teaches in the sacred city of Karbala.

photo of modarresi
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In practical terms, what Americans want to understand is what role does a religious person like yourself, an ayatollah, have in political life? Because this is foreign to tradition in America, where we have separation of church and state.

First, I actually believe that religion in Europe, and probably in America as well, does play a role in politics, but in smaller way and in an indirect way. Second, the Muslim world is quite different from the West because the Muslim world draws its ideas and values from Islam, and Islam does interfere with political matters, even indirectly. That is why Muslim leaders have more influence on politics than Christian leaders. ...

You have Sunni-Shia differences, but even within the Shia community, you have differences about how to go forward.

That is why we call for democracy, because democracy is the natural solution for difference. That is why we think that without democracy, freedom and free elections, the differences will only widen and it may very well lead to civil war, or to bloody conflicts, in a country like Iraq. Iraq is a country that has many arms and trained armed people. The Iraqi people are not afraid of death, and they are brave.

The absence of elections in Iraq could lead to civil war, I believe, not only between the Sunnis and Shiites or between the Kurds and the Arabs, but also within each group -- meaning Shiites between each other, Sunnis between each other, Kurds between each other. And we have seen how bloody conflicts erupted in the north of Iraq between the two competing parties some seven years ago.

In America there are skeptics, in Europe there are skeptics, that a society with no tradition of democracy can easily adopt democratic values. ... These skeptics say what the ayatollahs of southern Iraq want is not democracy. They can't understand democracy. ...

Indeed there are problems, and one of them is the multiple interpretations of religion itself. There is one interpretation that understands democracy as the heart of religion. Others think that democracy can coexist with religion, and vice-versa. And others think that democracy is foreign to religion and that it is a Western concept, and Islam has its own identity and so do the Muslim people.

In our confrontation with the obstacles on our way to democracy, we will have to fight on multiple fronts. We have to confront the Westerners that doubt the possible existence of democracy in our country, but also some of the factions in our country that do not believe in democracy or cast doubt on interest of democracy for their own country.

Unfortunately, many of the forces in the West strengthen Muslim extremism by casting doubt on the ability of Muslims for democratic change. This puts us in conflict with the extremists. The extremists say the West does not want democracy for your country, so why even bring it up? ...

What do you think America's role should be in the future?

I believe right now, the elections will help the moderates in Iraq and will bring the moderate forces to power, be they Islamists or not. But if we were to delay this election for two or three years, the Iraqi people will be frustrated, and if this people were to be frustrated they would rally around extremist forces, religious and not. I believe that America could help the moderate forces by allowing them to gain more prominence than others.

I am reading in some American newspapers, casting doubts about the intentions of the religious authority in Iraq: Mr. Sistani, God bless him, they believe that he represents something similar to Mr. Khomeini in Iran. Casting such doubts, as I said before, does not help the democratic process in Iraq or in the Muslim world. ...

But if we were to think about the consequences of not having a democracy now in Iraq, it would result in the frustration of Iraqi people, and potential civil war. We ought to be tolerant of some imperfections in the democratic process so that we won't face elimination of democracy all together in Iraq. ...

Then why do the Americans object to Sistani's call for direct elections?

The Americans think that the elections in Iraq would bring to power the Islamic forces, and that these forces would be subject to the influence of the extremists, and that they would cooperate with Iran and threaten the American interests in the Gulf. This fear is justified, but we on the other side also fear that the absence of democracy would [cause] tensions in this sensitive area, violence and never-ending problems. ...

It seems that Sunnis are very afraid of the Shia majority because, in fact, they have repressed the Shias over the years. ... The Americans are very afraid of, as you say, an Islamic state. ... and they fear that the situation will spiral out of control into some kind of civil war between Kurd and Arab, between Shia and Sunni. What do you see for the future?

The history of Iraq, before the Baath regime and before the military coups, was a bright history of great tolerance and cooperation between the Shiites and the Sunnis. There are a lot of tribes comprised of Shiites and Sunnis; many towns are made of Shiites and Sunnis that coexist without major problems. I believe that if the moderates were to be supported, we would be prevented from the rise of sectarianism.

Do you expect the Americans to leave soon?

We have to help the Americans to leave, because it is not in their interest to stay long in Iraq. Also it is not in their interest to leave Iraq while it is still living a situation of chaos and civil war. The Iraqi people have to help the American administration leave Iraq with honor, having accomplished their goals fully. The way for it to happen is to have an Iraqi national government comprised of all factions. That is why I personally condemn the acts of violence in Iraq, because they would delay the departure of the American army.



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posted february 12, 2004

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